As voters’ rights advocates and civil rights leaders embrace the 50th anniversary of the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, a new study by the Center for American Progress finds that shifting demographics in the South can help to accelerate meaningful social and political change.
The report titled, “True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer,” defined the Black Belt, a region known for its rich soil and history of plantation slavery, as regions in the following: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
According to the report, between 2000 and 2010, “the non-Hispanic white population in the South grew at a rate of 4 percent, while the so-called ‘minority’ population in the region experienced a 34 percent growth, the greatest out of any region in the country.”
Nearly 60 percent of blacks live below the Mason-Dixon line and blacks account for about 20 percent of the total population in the South. The report also noted that 40 percent of the blacks that relocated “to the South since 2000 were between the ages of 21 and 40 years old” and researchers said this group will likely settle and start families increasing the number of blacks living in the region.
The report continued: “These trends could have a major effect on the region’s politics because voters of color tend to be more progressive and vote overwhelmingly for progressive candidates.”
Changing demographics, frustration with right-wing extremists and the growing number of young voters will play a role in the growing progressive electorate pushing back on “a long history of polarization” in the Black Belt.
Republican state lawmakers in the Black Belt, who may feel threatened by the growing diversity among potential voters, have enacted a number of laws that have a disproportionate impact of the quality of life of the poor, blacks and other minorities.
According to the report, “nine states have passed laws requiring voters to bring photo identification to the polling booth in order to cast a traditional ballot” and governors in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina,
Tennessee, and Texas refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, “effectively denying health care to millions of their citizens, overwhelmingly the poor and people of color.”
The report continued: “Eleven states have passed ‘right-to-work’ laws, which discourage organizing by unions. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.”
During a panel discussion about the CAP report, Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP State Conference and the national co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary, said that there’s “a deficit of morality in the South, because people are not seen as people they are seen as exploitable cheap labor.”
Johnson added that access to the polls free of voter suppression, access to quality education, access to health care and workers’ rights are the primary issues that civil rights activists must focus on and organize around so that the South can progress.
The report said that today’s civil rights leaders and stakeholders should learn three key lessons from the Freedom Summer of 1964: voter registration can overcome voter suppression, coalition-building is the key to transformative political power, and that a successful movement is a marathon, not a sprint.
Stacey Abrams, House minority leader in the Georgia State Assembly, said people that have never voted hear about voter intimidation and voter suppression, but they don’t know what that means.
“You don’t know if you’re going to stand in line and cause trouble, you don’t know if you’re going to lose your job, you don’t know what that card is that you keep hearing about and you know that you don’t have whatever ID they think you should have,” said Abrams.
More than 800,000 black, Latino and Asian Americans are not registered to vote in Georgia, said Abrams. It takes less than half of that, just 260,000, to change a statewide election.
“If you change Georgia, you begin to change the South and if you change the South you change the nation,” explained Abrams. “All of those social policies that we like to talk about can be lived in the Deep South and if they are lived and realized they can be exported to the rest of the country.”
Abrams said that voters’ rights advocates and community stakeholders have to start talking about voter identification in a more positive way.
Ben Jealous, senior fellow for Center for American Progress, former president of the NAACP, and author of the report said, “Right now, when we talk about the South, we end up talking about voter suppression. What we really need to be talking about is the need for massive voter registration.”
The report said that “registering just 30 percent of eligible unregistered black voters or other voters of color could shift the political calculus in a number of Black Belt states” and “Registering 60 percent or 90 percent would change the political calculus in an even greater number of states.”
The CAP report cited Maryland, where a number of progressive policy changes are taking hold, as an example of a state where a slavery was once commonplace and now a diverse electorate has had a significant political impact.
“It is easy to forget that Maryland enslaved half its population at the time of the Civil War and that it is the state from which Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass escaped,” said the report. “Yet Maryland sits below the Mason-Dixon Line, and it practiced legalized segregation up until 1954.”
In just a few years, “The Free State” has experienced a number of key legislative reforms including a ban on the death penalty, the legalization of same-sex marriage, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, and the extension of early voting and same-day registration.
The report continued: “Maryland shows what can happen when people come together across old lines of separation and division to promote progressive values and policies. Maryland is not seceding from the South, instead it is demonstrating what the South’s future can and should be.”
Still, the report suggested that changing politics in the Black Belt won’t be an easy battle for pollsters and others seeking to energize potential voters in the South and across the country.
The report estimated that nearly 21 million members of the so-called “Rising American Electorate,” consisting of “people of color, unmarried women, and youth voters ages 18 to 29 years old,” that voted in 2012, might not vote in the 2014 elections.
Organizers and voters’ rights advocates still have a long march ahead.
“What the ‘Freedom Summer’ taught us is that the antidote for massive voter suppression is massive voter registration,” said Jealous. “There is a dormant majority throughout the South that can be unleashed if we can get back to the spirit of the ‘Freedom Summer’ and focus on massive voter registration.”